Making the Sociology of Human Rights More Sociological

By Woodiwiss, Anthony | Development and Society, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Making the Sociology of Human Rights More Sociological


Woodiwiss, Anthony, Development and Society


This paper is an exercise in reflexive theoretical sociology which marks a shift in my approach to the sociology of human rights. It begins by critically examining my past practice in the light of the general criticisms of the sociology of law recently set out by Mariana Valverde. My conclusion is that, while Valverde's particular criticisms, as mediated through Christopher Tomlins' discussion of my work, have little force, the radical nature of her challenge has the considerable merit of forcing the recognition and clarification of other very significant problems with my work, notably the absence of a distinctively sociological conception of rights. Having filled this gap, the paper goes on to provide a formal analytical description of the scope of the sociology of human rights. What is distinctive about this description is the fact that it recognizes that sociology should be as concerned with the causes of abuse as with the legal and other responses to abuse. The paper ends by suggesting that such an approach should greatly enhance the value-added provided by sociology to the study of human rights since it promises to provide a means of investigating the causes of human rights abuses that looks beyond the guilt or innocence of individual perpetrators of abuse.

Keywords: Sociology of human rights, Law, Good and Evil

I first began to realize that there may be a need to make the sociology of human rights more sociological in the course of writing my book Human Rights (2005a). On the one hand, I had argued for some time that whether one was interested in understanding or enforcing human rights the 'law was not enough,' but on the other hand most of what I was writing was actually rather narrowly concerned with human rights law or those non-legal developments that most directly affected the course of rights discourse. Fortunately for me, I was able to stop the anxiety produced by the resulting discomfort from becoming a block by inserting a chapter in Human Rights on what I called the comparative sociology of human rights and suggesting that interested readers should look at my earlier case studies (Woodiwiss, 1990b, 1992, 1998, 2003), if they wanted to know exactly how the general social processes specified in the chapter affected the development of labour rights in the particular societies I was discussing.

Fine though I hope it is in its own terms, the comparative sociology chapter was undoubtedly something of a bandaid. However, it is true that in my original case studies there is a lot about the pertinent non-legal and indeed wider legal aspects of social life and their role not just in directly prompting human rights developments but also in producing the underlying problems that the rights involved were a response to. Nevertheless, looking back, I can now see that if the source of the strength of my case studies lay in their rather tight focus on labour rights, this same tight focus was also a major source of the frustration I experienced when it came to trying to transfer the insights I felt I had gained from the labour rights case studies to the broader phenomena that are human rights. The principal symptom of my frustration was my inability at the time I was writing Human Rights to formulate any sort of general analytical statement as to the nature of the relationship between social-structural developments and human rights as a whole. Instead I scurried back to the comfortable resting place that for me was represented by Durkheim's insight as to the indexical character of the law and resorted to the metaphor of human rights being the tip of a social iceberg.

With the benefit of hindsight and thanks to the comments of a couple of perceptive commentators on my work, I can now see that the ultimate source of my problem was that I wanted to understand rights as uniform moments in a single causal process, whereas I should have been trying to see them as differentiated moments in a generic causal process. …

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